Unlikely Oasis by Steve Wall
Posted on February 29 2016
AquaTech user Steve Wall contacted us about making some custom housings for his radio slaves to allow for him to shoot waves in the dark. At first we thought he was crazy but the results are in and this is only the first step for Steve. Steve Wall is a 23 year old photographer and filmmaker based in Sydney, Australia using the Elite D810 water housing, P-100 Lens Port and custom radio transmitter water housings.
About two years ago, I started experimenting with the use of off camera flash in my surf and oceanic photography. The challenge of using lighting in the surf comes down to the fact that the environment is in a constant state of change, the subject itself, lights and camera are always moving and it’s quite a challenge to manage all the elements, especially when you can barely see what’s going on. For this project, we’re chasing the biggest and meanest waves with the most beautiful shapes – something that only really happens a handful of times each year when swell, wind, tide and weather come into alignment.
When I was assembling gear for this project, one of the main priorities was to utilise equipment that I can not only depend on, but would be easy and quick to operate in fairly testing conditions (and lack of light!) So to keep my Nikon D810 safe and sound, the Aquatech housing system was a perfect fit. Not only can I make all the important adjustments to the camera via various controls, there are electronic connections allowing for various trigger and flash connectivity and accessories. This allows me to use wireless triggers, allowing me to sync with lighting in various positions. For most of these images, I was shooting with the P-80 lens port for the Nikon 85mm, often at f/2.8.
Just like most of our early morning shoots, wake at 2.15am. Fellow photographer and my assistant for the project Dom Dixon and I met up and hit the road up the coast. We arrived a few hours later in complete darkness, to the sound of a thundering ocean. After setting up the waterproof gear, we loaded our jetski into the water – safely managing to get the 500kg watercraft off its trailer and through the shorebreak with only the car lights for guidance. A jetski allows us access to remote locations in a large swell, where getting in and out of the water is difficult during the day and near impossible under the cover of darkness.
All aboard, we tentatively navigated out into the open ocean, feeling the swell lines moving and passing underneath us. From here it was around 10km to our destination, with a distant tower providing a navigational beacon, and the glimmer of moonlight just letting us catch the outline of the oncoming swells. Phosphorescence was glowing luminescent, popping from the boat wake like turquoise fireflies. As we pushed forward, the nose of the jetski cut a darkened silhouette parting a sparkling sea. We couldn’t help but stop to appreciate the calming beauty of this amongst what had already been a pretty hectic morning.
After some steady pace towards our destination, the engine was straining and forward motion came to a halt. I would have been alarmed, had I not known we’d driven over a clump of seaweed hidden by darkness and blocked the water intake for the jet system. Easy fix – “Dom, jump in the water and climb underneath the ski and pull out the seaweed, then we’ll be good to go” At this point we were still miles off the coast, and for just a moment we sat in eerie silence before we fired up the engine again and kept moving.
As we approached the small, shallow patch of reef we would be attempting to photograph as the sun rose that morning, we paused for a moment and pulled out the D810 in it’s Aquatech housing, POP. The strobes fired for the first time illuminating the ocean way ahead of us, something that may have looked quite strange to anyone that happened to be looking on from the shore.
We waited for the slightest bit of light to appear on the eastern horizon before we dared inch closer. Any mistake here is one of consequence – waves break on a shallow reef, before relentlessly bombarding the rock platform and cliffs just a stones throw away. Even with the power of this lighting system, we still need to get right up close and personal, within 10 metres of the breaking part of the wave to get the best results. We had arranged for one to meet us out there that morning, but as the light came up it became apparent the waves were too wild to surf, especially when you can barely see what’s going on. As the sun rose, we shot the open ocean swells approach, gurgling and drawing water off the already shallow rock shelf before exploding skyward with a subtle touch of emerald green coming through the face from the early morning glow. When shooting early on, it’s necessary to shoot at shutter speeds as slow as half a second to capture any of the early ambient glow. As the ambient light levels rise, it’s all about achieving the right balance of natural and artificial light as with any other subject. The distant orange glow of the sky provides a soft and colourful backdrop to the deep blues of a throwing wave.
It’s remarkable the places that water photography can take you, out in the ocean on freezing winter mornings – single digit air and water temps. The biggest of swells, miles from shore, amongst the action just like the surfers. Over the course of shooting this project, the sleepless nights spent driving up and down the coast, freezing mornings putting on icy wetsuits an hour before first light have all been part of the fun. It may seem tough at the time, but when all is said and done I can look back on it fondly, and already be looking forward to the next opportunity to take to the high seas under the cover of darkness.